MMP weekend: Germany and New Zealand 2017

We are entering days of convergences. Over the next two days, the Jewish and Islamic new years and the first day of Autumn coincide. Then, on the weekend, we have the convergence of elections in the two countries that offer our best examples of mixed-member proportional (MMP) representation electoral systems: Germany and New Zealand. (Lest I be accused of hemispherism, let me hasten to note that in one of those countries, the election will be the day after the start of spring.)

In the case of Germany, which votes Sunday, there really has been no doubt for some time that the CDU/CSU alliance would place first, but it will be down from its 2013 result. There is also little doubt that the two parties that missed the 5% party-vote threshold in 2013 will clear it this time: the center-right FDP and the far-right AfD. The SPD, which briefly flirted with the lead in the polls some months after changing its leadership, looks like it may struggle to break 25% of the vote. The real question is what the coalition will be, after the election results are known.

I would expect the SPD to want a period of opposition to recollect itself after what looks sure to be another disappointing result for the party. Thus it may not be willing to renew the current CDU/CSU+SPD big coalition (what we should stop calling a grand coalition; my more direct translation of the German term is more apt). If the FDP has enough seats to combine with the CDU/CSU, we might see a return to the center-right combo that governed from 2009 to 2013, as well as in many past terms. There is just enough error in the projections from polling to allow for the possibility that this could be a viable combine. (Mouse over the numbers in the table at that link for the range of vote and seat projections for each party.)

However, the most likely result seems to me to be Jamaica! I will admit to rooting for this: CDU/CSU + FDP + Green. (The name refers to the parties’ colors.)

In New Zealand, the contest for Saturday’s election is much more uncertain. For months it seemed National, which heads the current multi-party governing arrangement, was cruising to another win. Then Labour changed its leader and surged (similar to the German pattern). By a few weeks ago, the two largest parties were running neck and neck, while the Greens stumbled badly and looked at risk of failing to clear the 5% party-vote threshold. This scenario was posing a potential difficult challenge for center-left voters: Do you vote Labour to bolster its formateur status (as the largest party, although there is no formal right of first attempt to the largest in New Zealand)? Or do you vote Green to ensure there is a viable partner for Labour other than Winston Peters and his New Zealand First (NZF) party? Given that the electoral system is MMP, you can do both: vote for Labour in your district (electorate) and vote Green on the list. However, while that might be a voter’s way of making a statement of preferred coalition, only the party vote affects the overall balance of seats in parliament. (Some exceptions to that statement, as I will get to below, but none likely relevant to the Labour-Green situation discussed here.)

In recent days, some polling suggests that National might be pulling ahead again. The result could be very close, and it could be a situation in which NZF is pivotal (although that may be less likely than it seemed some weeks ago). That is, assuming NZF makes it. The party has been tending downward and is hovering near 5%, as are the Greens . Here is where the electorate (district/nominal) vote comes in. The threshold provision for a party to participate in nationwide proportional allocation is 5% of party-list votes or one electorate. (Additional MPs elected beyond the electorate candidate are what I have termed “piggyback MPs“, not to be confused with that other MMP creature, the “shadow MP“.) The Greens do not have an electorate where they are viable, but NZF does.

Peters, the NZF leader, currently holds an electorate seat, Northland, having won it in a by-election in 2015. He is the party’s candidate again for the seat. If he retains it, his party would qualify for additional list seats, even if it fell below the 5% party-vote threshold.

The other electorate contests that matter include the one in Epsom, although it is not really a contest. The seat is safe for the one Act MP, David Seymour, who is quite certain to return. It is probably not likely that the Act party vote will be sufficient to earn the party a second seat, although I saw one projection a week or so ago that suggested it was possible. Act has been a governing partner with National since 2008.

Then there is Waiariki, one of the Maori set-aside seats. (Voters who claim Maori descent can choose to vote in their special Maori electorate or in the general electorate seat in which the reside.) Te Ururoa Flavell is fighting to hold the seat, which is the only way his party will retain a presence in parliament. That is quite a change for the party, which has been a National governing partner since 2008. In the past it has won as many as five electorate seats (in 2008) and in 2014 it had sufficient party votes to win a list seat for the first time, in addition to its win in Waiariki electorate. This time, it may end up with just one seat–or zero.

One electorate we know will not matter this time is Ohariu. United Future leader Peter Dunne resigned in August, after a 33-year career as an MP. This effectively kills the party, which has been a support partner to every government, whether led by Labour or National, since 2002. Only in 2002 did the party clear the party-vote threshold, and since 2008, Dunne has been its only member.

In an interesting twist on the Ohariu story, the Greens had initially decided not to contest the seat, in order to give the Labour candidate a chance to defeat Dunne and thereby knock a National partner out of the government-formation equation. When Dunne resigned, the Greens announced a candidate for the seat. With Dunne not running, there is no scenario in which this electorate will matter for the parliamentary balance, so there was no reason for the Greens not to have “local face” on the party (even though many of its voters will split their vote and give their electorate vote to the Labour candidate anyway). Running a candidate is thus another example of what I have called green contamination.

Two MMP elections in one weekend. Now that will be something to watch!

 

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How not to federalise

Since his election in 2015, Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte has done little that supporters of liberal democracy should admire. His program of extrajudicial killings and contemptuous attitude to the judicial institutions of the Philippines demonstrates that he is in many ways a dangerous figure for the country. However, it’s true that a stopped clock is right twice a day, and one of Duterte’s more positive ideas for the country has been a consistently expressed willingness to change the country’s political system, from the existing system of unitary presidentialism to a semi-presidential federal system.

In keeping with this principle, a group of Senators have presented a specific proposal for a dramatically revised new federal constitution. Having only given it a cursory examination, I responded positively-however, a more careful examination demonstrates several substantial issues with the draft.

The proposal would divide the Philippines into eleven states, with Manila City becoming a federally administered region. Only half of Duterte’s proposal would be implemented, though, as presidentialism is kept-the most substantial change to the structure of the now federal government would be a change to the Senate, which would go from being a twenty-four member body elected using MNTV in one nationwide district for six-year terms (with staggered elections to half of the chamber every three years) to a seventy-five member body elected with states acting as districts, nine senators per state, and three senators elected per state every two years.

In general, the Philippines has not been a positive example of presidentialism. Presidents have regularly been elected in fragmented races (Fidel Ramos was elected in 1992 with 24% of the vote), and the party system for the legislature is if anything more weak and fragmented, with fluid allegiances (best demonstrated by the numbers of President Duterte’s PDP-LABAN party going from two at the election to a comfortable majority afterwards).

The federal aspect of the constitution also leaves something to be desired. Governors are elected directly, with first-past-the-post for four-year terms. Initially, and somewhat unusually, state legislators are elected by local councils. Three are elected for each province, a truly astonishing degree of malapportionment. For example, in Central Visayas State, the province of Siquijor (pop. 96,000) will have the same three seats as Cebu (pop. 4.6 million). Three further members are elected: one for farming, one for fisheries, and one for senior citizens.

Indirect election by local councils becomes variable by state legislatures after the first election. It is left unclear as to whether states are able to amend the composition of their legislatures, or whether local councils are still able to recall members of state legislatures.

Weirdly enough, states can create ‘autonomous regions’ within their own territories, the powers of which are only vaguely defined. States also have exclusive power, strangely enough, over “trade…tourism…weights and measures” as well as “pilgrimages to places outside the Republic”, which, as JD pointed out to me, could allow corrupt state officials to be spirited away from federal police on fairly spurious grounds.

None of this is to say, of course, that the principles of federalism don’t make sense for the Philippines. As a large country with clear political diversity, it makes sense to devolve power from a potentially unrepresentative core. Nonetheless, the proposal put forward by the Senators risks creating equally unrepresentative state-level governments with a somewhat esoteric mix of powers. More work is needed, and presumably the plan will be looked at more carefully through the later process of the reform process.

Should New Zealand do away with by-elections?

In New Zealand’s MMP system, there are by-elections if there is a vacancy between general elections in a single-seat district. This is not a mandatory feature of MMP systems; Germany, for example, has no by-elections. A vacancy in a district is filled off the list of the party of the vacating member.

Nigel Roberts, a leading New Zealand expert on elections and electoral systems, writes in the Dominion Post that New Zealand should end the practice of by-elections. In making the case, he refers to a by-election in the constituency of Mt Albert, which is a safe Labour seat. The Labour Party’s candidate in the by-election, Jacinda Ardern, already is an MP, via the party list. Thus the effect of her winning (which she did) is simply to shift the type of mandate she has*, and have her replaced as a list MP by the next available candidate on the Labour list from the preceding election.

Roberts suggests adding a regional component to the lists in order to ensure that the replacement is from the same region as the district in which the vacancy has occurred.

A potential problem with the proposal is the fact that sometimes a by-election really does shift who controls a district and sometimes can even change the nationwide balance between parties (as happened in a recent case in Northland district). Roberts takes the position that this is better avoided, so as not to change potentially the majority for the government. “Party votes cast in general elections should make or break governments – not electorate votes cast in by-elections,” he says.

I am curious to know what readers think of the proposal.

* As well as, sadly, deprive us of my favorite case of a list MP “shadowing” the district-elected MP.

A list order change under Australian Senate rules

The voters in Tasmania have pushed a Labor Senator up the ranks and she will be reelected ahead of other candidates of the party.

Under the old system, most voters cast ticket votes, making the order of election in any given party more closed list than open or STV. Now, voters can rank “below the line” without having to rank all candidates. (Alternatively, they can rank parties “above the line”.)

The article notes that Tasmanian voters have tended to vote below the line more than voters in other states, anyway (probably because they use STV for their state assembly).

There are also some strange ballot rankings above the line. ABC says, quoting Polling analyst Kevin Bonham:

I’ve seen cases like people voting One for the Shooter, Fishers and Farmers, and Two for the Animal Justice Party, two parties that are more or less totally opposed to each other in the views. I saw people voting for the Sex Party, then Family First – one exists to basically negate the other. People are viewing parties in quite a strange way.

Thailand’s new constitution and electoral system

Thailand will be holding a referendum on adopting a new constitution on August 7. A translation of this document is available here. The nation is currently ruled by a military junta, which took power from the elected government in May 2014. If the constitution is adopted, elections will be held in mid-2017 to choose a new civilian government (though that date has been pushed back a fair few times).

The document provides for a bicameral Thai parliament, as has been the norm for the nation’s numerous democratic constitutions. There is a Senate and a House of Representatives. One of the most substantial changes is that the Senate, which was half-elected and half-appointed by the King (I am unclear whether this was to take place on the advice of the government) under the 2007 constitution, and entirely elected under the 1997 one, will now be wholly appointed. This represents a return to pre-1997 practice.

While the Senate only has a delaying role on most legislation, passage at a joint sitting is required for certain ‘organic’ laws, like those on elections, the operation of the Constitutional Court, and the specific method for choosing Senators. This will become especially important in the first term of government, as the first Senate is to be appointed on the advice of the members of the junta.

The House of Representatives is the larger and more powerful of the two houses. As was hinted at by the drafters of the new document, it is to be elected using mixed-member proportional representation, though with closed lists and a remarkably small list tier (150 list/350 constituency).

When this proposal was first put about, I did some simulations of what the House would have looked like following the 2011 election had MMP been used. These estimates are based off a smaller list tier (the size of the one used under MMM in 2011). Any increase in the size of the House is due to overhang.

"Projections
The key loser would be the populist Pheu Thai party, strongly opposed by the coup leaders and the winner would be the Democrat Party, which is considered to have the tacit support of the coup leaders. This would not necessarily be an unfair advantage (given it would give the Democrats a somewhat closer share of seats to their nationwide support), but it would be an advantage nonetheless.

MMP is specifically entrenched in the document. Amendment procedures have also changed; while past documents have allowed a majority of members of the House to make amendments, the new document will require 20% support from opposition parties to make amendments. Needing a super-majority isn’t unusual internationally, but not many constitutions contain quite so many specific electoral provisions as Thailand’s.

What impact increased proportionality will have on Thailand’s democracy is not entirely clear. On one hand, it could require governments to form broader coalitions, which might reduce confrontation in Thai politics and thus less resort to extra-constitutional means. On the other, it could lead to a fragmented House and weak, revolving-door civilian governments, like those that existed before 1997.

It is also worth noting that the elections scheduled for mid-2017, if they take place then, will be held under a law written and approved by the current military-appointed legislature.

Regardless of this constitution, Thailand has clearly got serious problems with military intervention. Previous Constitutions of a similar nature to this one ended in failure. It is unclear whether this one will be any better, though I see it as unlikely.